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Monday, March 20, 2023

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The complexities and rewards of serving an aging population.
By Nicole K. Millett

Lynn Northrop, Ph.D., a San Diego State clinical psychologist specializing in geriatrics, recalls feeling an aversion to the elderly when she began a college internship at a senior center.

“My assumptions back then are probably similar to those students have today,” she said. “I thought I’d be working somewhere that was scary, boring and depressing.”

Today, as director of academic programs and research in the College of Health and Human Services’ collaboration with the Senior Community Centers (SCC), Northrop is helping to change students’ misperceptions about aging.

Within the next 20 years, the number of Americans over age 60 will more than double to 95 million. As this shift occurs, the stereotype of the doddering senior will give way to a more accurate picture of elder Americans as active, contributing members of society, according to Paul Downey, SCC president and CEO.

It is essential for students entering the healthcare workforce to understand the changing dynamic of the aging population. Through a $400,000 grant from the Gary and Mary West Foundation, SDSU has partnered with SCC to offer future health professionals an opportunity for positive interaction with seniors.

Students from SDSU’s schools of nursing, social work, public health and speech, language and hearing sciences will gain experience at the SCC’s new state-of-the-art Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center in downtown San Diego. The center provides meals, social, medical and mental health services, homeless and housing assistance and wellness activities—all focused on prevention and independence.

Under Northrop’s direction, students will fulfill their required clinical activities interacting with healthy, active seniors. This training prepares them for entering the workforce, where they will collaborate with other healthcare professionals.

And collaboration is key, particularly in elder care. If a senior has difficulty socializing, the underlying cause may be an undiagnosed hearing problem. By working in interdisciplinary teams, students learn how various health factors connect and often complicate a diagnosis.

As students realize the complexities of caring for seniors, they will also conduct vital research. Northrop hopes the West Senior Wellness Center will gain national recognition as a center of excellence for research on healthy aging. “We have a unique opportunity to create a learning laboratory here as we help older adults achieve optimal health and wellbeing.”